When Xi Met Trump

Last week a Chinese and an American met up at a resort in Florida. You could argue both could legitimately say…

China’s President Xi Jinping and Trump’s two-day summit in Florida dominated news here and around the world (before the missile attacks, that is). Needless to say, the world’s attention is on the diplomatic relations between China and the US, amongst other countries. All the power games and political factors aside, navigating this burgeoning relationship must be an interesting process for both leaders from a cultural point of view.

At the summit there was dinner, a time to socialise, and seven hours of talks, if we’re to believe the reports. That is a long time to be talking to someone that you’ve never really met before. I would have loved to be a fly on the wall. I wonder how cultural differences were handled, and how bridges were formed so that both sides could (a) understand where the other was coming from and (b) ensure their point was coming across accurately. Yes, both leaders would have been heavily briefed by their advisors etc. but at the end of the day it is still essentially two people from vastly different cultures and backgrounds hanging out for a long time.

Having lived with a Chinese family and spent some time with Chinese high school students preparing to study abroad, I have had some incredible insight into the Chinese psyche and culture. Coming from a Western upbringing, I have discovered there are some things that you need to know if you’re wanting to truly understand our fellow Chinese global citizens.

A fundamental virtue of the Chinese is modesty. Qiānxū. In Chinese culture there are many sayings about remaining modest and humble. It’s a virtue extolled higher than self-belief and self confidence. This is quite different to how we’re reared in the West; we’re taught from a young age to believe in ourselves and we get daily doses of “you can do anything”. Here in China, there is a really different mindset. The students I meet are incredibly modest and abhor the idea of talking themselves up. Sure, most people are uncomfortable in an interview situation when you have to sell yourself, but the students I have met are bashful to the extreme. They’re visibly and seemingly viscerally uncomfortable with the idea of talking about how great they are. I have asked my students why they struggle so much with talking about their strengths and they just go all bashful again. It seems tortuous to talk about themselves. There is a real disdain for flamboyance and arrogance if you’re talking about your own achievements or abilities.

In saying that, what is interesting is that this disdain for flamboyance or showiness goes totally out the window when it comes to showing off your wealth or status. While talking about your wealth or achievements is not OK, showing your wealth is almost a national sport. The ostentatiousness of Chinese seems to be a direct contrast to the Western culture (at least amongst the middle class) of not being too flashy. For the Chinese, when it comes to showing off your wealth, more is more. For example, being hosted by a Chinese for a meal is a real experience. They will ensure you eat twice your body weight in food and insist on filling your wine glass and rice bowl until you have to be quite firm about the fact you’re full to bursting. They are truly very gracious (if not aggressive 😅) hosts.

Another thing I have found is that Chinese people are generally either “open” or “closed” to you; there isn’t really a middle ground. If they’re closed, they won’t really acknowledge you; you’ll be blanked. This “blanking” overrides any kind of behavior that we in the West would consider common courtesy. For example, most Chinese won’t hold the door open for you. If you’re coming out of the lift or the metro, people will just barge right through. At first I considered this quite rude but then I remembered it’s just a different culture. It’s not that our way is the right way; it’s just different. On the other hand, if a Chinese person is “open” to you, it won’t take long before you’re regarded as family. They will really do anything to help you. It’s like the friendship has been fast-tracked and once you’re in, you’re in. My Chinese friends have been so quick to open up to me and offer to help. I have heard this is a common experience amongst other Western friends; we have found that many Chinese are really caring and friendly with zero expectation of anything in return. Chinese people have a real “host” or “guardian” personality trait and you get the feeling that their ability to serve you well really gives them a buzz. It doesn’t feel token at all; there’s a genuine desire to help.

How these cultural factors translate to the relationship between Xi and Trump, I wouldn’t know. Is Trump in or out? Out of my own interest I have been asking the Chinese I know about their views on Trump. There seem to be three broad camps. The first camp are extremely reticent to discuss politics at all; they deem it a “sensitive” topic that shouldn’t be talked about. Most of my students give me a blank look or embarrassed laugh when I ask what they think about Trump. My colleagues have told me that many Chinese students are too focused on their grades and excelling at school to have enough time or energy to keep up to date on world politics. The second camp are a little more aware of what’s happening and think Trump is great. They see him as a movie star and that he’ll also “make China great again”. One of my friends jokes that the mindset is “Trump bless you”. The last camp are a lot more critical of him and feel that China needs to approach him with a great deal of caution. So Trump is fairly polarising here, as in other parts of the world.

World politics indeed appear to be in a precarious position. Key relationships are being forged; between whom, who can really be sure. What we do know though is that when different cultures come together, they have to meet each other where each are at. There needs to be understanding, open-mindedness, cultural awareness, and compromise so that both parties are at a level they can meaningfully communicate and connect. Otherwise it’s just talking at cross-purposes. Hopefully our world leaders can focus on common goals of peace and prosperity, and not let self-centered objectives cloud their judgment.

In any event, what I have learnt living in China in a culture different to my own is that people are just a product of their upbringing. Values and behavior are all social constructs. Had I been brought up in China I probably would be spitting and hoiking as well as the rest of them (and wow have I seen some impressive ones). Let’s embrace our cultural differences as it makes the world a more interesting place.✌️

Show your support

Clapping shows how much you appreciated Jen Tiang’s story.